The Ascension of Christ in film: literalism, symbolism, etc.

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, when Christians remember how Jesus was taken up into heaven 40 days after his Resurrection. It’s one of the stranger bits in the Gospels — both difficult to understand, given our modern cosmology, and difficult to pull off visually — and most of what we know about it actually comes from the Book of Acts. So it’s not too surprising that most films about Jesus have tended to skip this episode.

Nevertheless, a few films have depicted the Ascension, often by mixing it with elements from other stories in the gospels, and even those that don’t depict it have often made a point of ending on a note that suggests Jesus has transcended this life in some way that parallels the Ascension. Here are a few examples.

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Darwin Shaw on playing St Peter (and a Lego Bond villain)

The apostle Peter is not the first biblical character that Darwin Shaw has played in his decade or so as an actor. You can see him briefly as Adam, in a new prologue to the Campus Crusade film Jesus (1979) that was shot a few years ago, and you can also see him as the “Semitic Jesus” in Gospel of Thomas (2009), an interactive adaptation of the Gnostic text that allows you to toggle between different actors. (Another actor plays the “Western Jesus”.)

But Peter is easily the biggest role of this sort that Shaw has tackled so far. He appears in all five of the New Testament-themed episodes in last year’s mini-series The Bible, and he will appear again this week in Son of God, the big-screen movie that consists mostly of footage from that mini-series but also includes a few new scenes.

I spoke to Shaw — whose credits also include Casino Royale (2006), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), John Carter (2012) and a deleted scene from Prometheus (2012) — by phone last week while he was in Los Angeles to promote Son of God.

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The Prodigal Son: three filmed interpretations (and more)

Today was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in Eastern Orthodox churches, and once again, I found myself thinking about how our gospel reading for the day had been handled in different films.

The parable of the prodigal son appears just once in the Bible, in Luke 15, so of course it is featured in the word-for-word adaptation of that gospel produced by the Genesis Project in the 1970s. And just as the Genesis Project dramatizes some of the other parables while Jesus recites them, so too it dramatizes this one. You can watch the relevant sequence by clicking here.

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Son of God: why is Jesus holding that stone in his hand?

The YouTube channel for Son of God has been releasing new videos almost daily, all of them consisting of various Christian leaders who have lined up to promote the film by commenting on a clip from the film.

Despite the fact that there are a dozen different “exclusive interviews” on the YouTube channel now, they all revolve around just three basic clips: ‘Peter Goes Fishing’, ‘Walking on the Water’ and ‘The Last Supper’. And today’s clip, featuring Cardinal Donald Wuerl, offers an interpretation of the ‘Peter Goes Fishing’ scene that hadn’t occurred to me before.

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Jesus walks on water in new Son of God clip

The story of Jesus walking on the water appears in three of the canonical gospels — not, as you might think, the three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) but, rather, the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. I have no idea why Luke’s gospel leaves this story out, but it’s not too hard to see why life-of-Jesus movies have skipped this episode for the most part.*

For one thing, it’s more brazenly supernatural than some of the other miracles, which could be a turn-off to some of the more skeptical or liberally-minded audience members. Also, it’s kind of hard to visualize what it would have looked like, exactly, for someone to walk on water — especially when there was a storm raging all around him and stirring up the waves. Until the rise of CGI, it might have been too difficult to film a version of this scene that would have looked half-way plausible.

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Bible movie of the week: The Big Fisherman (1959)

Four years ago, I wrote a blog post on The Big Fisherman (1959), one of the more obscure Bible movies ever released by a major Hollywood studio.

As far as I know, the film, which was originally distributed by Walt Disney’s Buena Vista division, has never been officially released to home video, at least not in North America. But I had read a bit about it in books on the history of Jesus movies — the title refers to the apostle Peter — and I was intrigued by the information I found at the Internet Movie Database.

For one thing, the film is based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, who also wrote The Robe, which 20th Century Fox turned into a much more famous film in 1953. For another, it seemed that this film might rely on the secular account of Herod Antipas and John the Baptist given to us by Josephus, which no other film I could think of had ever done.

And what did the apostle Peter have to do with any of this? I had no idea, but I was curious to find out.

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